The Young Adult Section: The art of losing myself

Opinion by Nina M. Chung
Nov. 1, 2011, 12:28 a.m.

The Young Adult Section: The art of losing myselfI won the same yearbook award at the end of both middle school and high school: The Most Likely to Brighten Your Day Award. I don’t even remember being particularly surprised the second time. Through those years and onward, I also became accustomed to certain related qualities that kept popping up when people described me and when I described myself. That award was only part of a set of experiences that gradually convinced me I had to be the one who would brighten your day: the happy one, the cute one, the constantly excited one, the open one, the clever one. I had to be laughing and smiling all the time. I had to be jumpy, unpredictable and entertaining, ever the immaculate extrovert. And I knew this was how people saw me.

Wait, I’ll be honest — I didn’t just know it, I was constantly aware…and burning myself out as I played the identity game to a tee. It was a new kind of selfishness, one that has nothing to do with money or material or sharing. But I can’t think of any word but “selfish” to describe the self-obsession I fed as I constantly strategized how best to fulfill who I was expected to be.

I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but I don’t think I’m the only one. Expectations surround us like air — unseen, unspoken and unbelievably heavy. There is, for example, the collective freshman conception that not attending a frat party is a social code violation. But not all freshmen enjoy frat parties, and that’s a fact. Unfortunately, it takes many of us a relatively long time to realize that our entire social lives for the next four years are actually not affected by non-attendance. Great news! Still, the expectation exists, ready to trap students and steal their weekends. And secretly unwilling students will continue to go, thinking that they need to be “social,” if that’s how they choose to define it.

The outside expectations by which we judge ourselves are thus often self-imposed. No doubt they stress us out. Yet we tend to place values on ourselves through our success or failure in fulfilling them. We have to become a household name after graduating because that’s what our family thinks is success. We have to be environmentally sustainable because that’s what a good global citizen is. We have to be constantly conversational because otherwise we’re being “antisocial” (which has apparently become a minor crime). Or we have to be the funny/intellectual/organized/nonchalant/insightful one among our friends, even if we’ve outgrown the title and it’s starting to get tiresome. The truth is that none of these things are bad in and of themselves; it’s just that none of them are very good, either. No matter how much security we feel inside these convenient little shoeboxes, fitting inside them doesn’t make us any more worthwhile as people or friends or family members. I believe that they’re not inherently valuable.

Of course, though, it feels unimaginably risky to step outside those bounds. At least, that’s how I felt. I used to be afraid that someone would catch a glimpse of me that wasn’t bright and bouncy because I was afraid they’d realize I was boring. Then I would be lost to myself, too…and that scared me more than anything. I suppose it was just around two years ago that I met someone who saw that side of me…and was still completely crazy about me. Seriously, it was completely disorienting at first. I mean, how often do we not have to live up to a single thing and still get to be loved? But I learned that it was more than okay, really, not to meet others’ standards. And that was liberation, pure and simple.

I was recently talking about that exact relationship with another friend of mine, who said this about “knowing” me before I had chosen into it: “Don’t get me wrong, I totally thought you were super nice and bubbly and everything, but, like, I wondered who you actually were.” And it was amazingly refreshing to finally hear it out loud because I knew it was true of so many people I used to meet. It’s ironic, the way we distance other people the more we inch closer to what they expect of us.

It’s too much strategy and too much effort. If we can just lose all of that, it’s easier to meet the one who still finds us valuable — without us making a single move.

Curious? Cautious? Critical? Don’t think — just email Nina at ninamc “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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